8 Things Nobody Tells You About Climbing a Mountain
My name is Ian Overton, and a couple of years ago, I was roped into attempting the most indisputably batshit thing I have ever attempted. Alongside two Hungarians (David Klein and Zoltan Acs), I became the first American mountaineer to make an attempt to summit Pakistan's Nanga Parbat in the winter. I got my ass kicked. Hard.
That's because ...
One in Four Climbers Never Come Back From This Mountain
Nanga Parbat is where some of mountaineering's most kickass figures are made. It's the kind of mountain that turns men into legends ... or more frequently, frozen corpsicles. At least 68 people have died trying to reach the top.
In retrospect, I probably should've paid more attention to the signs.
Standing at an elevation of 26,660 feet on the eastern edge of the Himalayas, Nanga Parbat is a looming monster with skin of steep, avalanche-prone faces that sometimes develops its own weather systems. It's in an area known for its conservative -- in some cases, extremist -- religious devotees (11 international climbers were murdered by the Taliban there a few months after I left in the summer of 2013). It joins K2 as one of the two eight-thousanders (one of the rare mountains on earth to stand higher than 8,000 meters) yet to be summited in winter.
The Germans nicknamed it Killer Mountain, and it has damned well earned that moniker over the years: Nanga Parbat boasts a 28 percent death ratio. To put that in perspective, Everest, at a mere 10 percent, is the mountain that Nanga Parbat pushes down on the playground and calls a pussy.
The Life-Saving Gear Is So Expensive That You Have to Beg for a Sponsor
To pull off an expedition like this, you need money. Lots of it. My partners David and Zoli both had significant financial backers for prior expeditions -- European branches of Samsung, Pepsi, and AIG, to name a few. So how do you get funded? First and foremost, you need to be in the top of your field. Strike one against me right there. Secondly, sponsorship is a give-and-take relationship. They need results, they need media presence, and they need you to not die while you're doing whatever you've talked them into paying you to do.
Easier said than done, that one.
After striking out with every sponsor I contacted, I finally got one to agree to supply the gear we needed to survive ... although I think it's fair to say that the only reason they did so wasn't my climbing resume, but the simple fact that it was an attempt at the Killer Mountain in winter. Climbing Everest doesn't get you sponsors anymore -- you have to go absurd or go home. And if absurdity were cash money, we'd have been straight-up ballin'. After that, it was booze to the rescue; our friends over at Johnnie Walker, alongside a Hungarian vineyard called Bodri, kicked enough cash our way (as well as several cases of sweet, sweet hooch) to make our stay at base camp more comfortable.
IMPORTANT: DO NOT CLIMB KILLER MOUNTAINS WHILE INTOXICATED
So we had a plan ...
Step 1: Do this.
Step 2: Do not die while doing this.
... and we had the means to survive comfortably while enacting said plan. Comfort doesn't last long on Nanga Parbat, however, because I soon discovered all the horrible ways this mountain can murder a motherfucker ...
I Fell Into a Hidden Crevasse
If you don't know what a crevasse is, or have never gotten wedged into one, think 127 Hours, but replace the rock with a metric shit-ton of ice and crank the thermostat down to temperatures capable of making your balls tinkle like wind chimes.
My first crevasse encounter happened during an exploratory attempt at accessing what we would call Camp 1 via the Ganalo Ridge. While establishing a recon camp right below the ridgeline, I failed to secure the tent's rain fly (the little tarp that keeps the weather out). The wind picked up and our only barrier from the elements fluttered away like a pretty little butterfly. Without thinking, I shouted "GOT IT!" and sprinted down the snow-covered face with one ice tool and no crampons (those spiked things you strap to your feet for traction).
Which you may recognize as the mountaineering equivalent of driving without a seat belt ... or airbag ... or brakes ... or ...
Upon turning a corner, I saw the fly wrapped around a stone pillar about 15 feet off the ground. I stopped, took a breath, stepped forward, and heard something shatter. The world dropped out from under me.
I stared at the ice wall ahead of me, having no idea what had just happened. I had landed on an ice ledge about seven feet down into a crevasse, my toes inches from an edge that plummeted into darkness.
Or, more accurately, into about a cubic mile of empty air and brutal, unforgiving gravity.
I'm still not sure how I managed it, but I jumped up, grabbed the rim of the crevasse and pulled myself out. Zoli came around a corner in time to see me wiggling back up to the surface, offering to fetch my crampons for me. I mumbled something like "Umm ... no. I'm good. Yeah." Then I scurried up the stone pillar to retrieve the fly and (slowly) returned to camp, doing my best to pretend that nothing had happened.
Terrifying as it was, I chalked it up to a singular, bad-judgment-induced incident -- it wouldn't happen again, because I'd play it safe from here on out. And then ...
I Fell Into a Hidden Crevasse a Fucking Second Time
A few days later, David and I had established Camp 1, following our original plan, and we were exploring an ice fall that would lead to Camp 2. We lost track of time and night overtook us, so to expedite travel, we chose to move without ropes (bad idea). David's headlamp began to die, so I took lead. Between the lack of light and snowfall, we lost track of our bamboo trail markers. The process of trailblazing in crevasse-filled snowfields is arduous: take a step, tap the ground in front of you with your trekking pole or ice tool to make sure it's solid, take a step. You think you've got it down after a while. It becomes meditative.
"You know, this whole process has really given me time to think about my life."
"Think about your death instead; it's a lot more likely to become immediately relevant."
That's when I fell through.
There was no crash this time -- if anything, just the slight thump of snow giving way to nothingness. I instinctively kicked out my legs, catching myself on the rear cleat of my left crampon and the front points of my right, my eyes slightly above level with the rim. I looked down and saw nothing. It was a black hole rimmed by blue ice. I wish I had said something witty or brave. What came out was "ohholyfuckshitfuckDAVIDHELP!"
David got as close he could to the edge without breaking through and levered me up with a ski pole under my armpit. He tossed me a rope and I tied in and jumped across the span. He reached out to shake my hand.
I hugged the man.
Of course, who wouldn't want to hug this guy?
We inched our way up to the edge of the crevasse on our bellies and looked down. My headlamp couldn't reach the bottom, but our best guess put its depth somewhere over a hundred feet and flaring out to the sides. With my heart in my stomach and balls in my throat, we kept walking. And ...
Then We Walked Into an Avalanche
With David's headlamp still dimmer than firefly shit, I was on lead across one of several snowfields we had to cross. Suddenly, I heard a dull rumble with which I was all too familiar. What flashed through my mind wasn't getting crushed by massive ice blocks; it was being trapped upside down, unable to move, while the snow slowly melts around you, suffocating you in an icy fishbowl.
The wide open spaces tend to downplay how fast your world can shrink down to the size of a coffin.
I can't speak for what went through David's mind, but he was no stranger to avalanches. Several years prior, on Everest, a hanging glacier broke loose, killing his partner Kony and leaving him dangling by a rope off of a cliff face with a broken arm.
The ground started to shake. I shot a glance upslope, my headlamp illuminating the blast cloud of fast-moving ice and snow, and yelled, "INCOMING!" (It seemed like an appropriate thing to yell). We sprinted until we reached the edge of a crevasse, when David yelled, "DOWN!" (once in Hungarian, once in English). We dug our crampons into the snow, tucked in, and waited for impact.
That impact being a goddamn mountain.
The air blast is the first thing that hits -- a giant gust of freezing air, dust, and particulate ice. Then golf ball-sized rocks. I heard the thump of massive ice boulders tumbling down mere feet behind us.
And then, silence. Nothing. I opened my eyes and stood up, coughing from the spindrift of dust and ice. David yanked me back down, fearing a secondary slide. When nothing happened, we looked at each other. I started laughing, a coping mechanism of mine when shit gets weird. David shrugged it off and we staggered back to Camp 1.
We Were Forced to Sleep Tentless On a Mountainside
The night after the avalanche, David and I established a gear cache below an ice labyrinth. Under advice that storms would be moving in, we decided to return to base camp. Again we lost the trail due to blinding snow. And again, one of us fell into a crevasse. David this time.
"Are you alright?"
"No. No. Still very much in danger."
In retrospect, that really should've been clear from context clues.
I used the same tactic he'd used on me to lever him out, dragging him backwards away from the crevasse. We called Zoli on the radio. He told us the moon wouldn't be out until the wee hours, and it was questionable if we'd even see it. David began to pace back and forth.
"What are you doing?"
"Making a bed."
It's hard to tell with the mask, but I had the same look on my face as you do right now.
Apparently, we were going to bivouac (that's French for "we don't need tents, you pussy"). We packed out a small platform in the snow, just big enough to accommodate us, and tucked in for the night. I don't know how cold it got -- our thermometer got screwy beyond 30 below. We'll go with real goddamn cold.
I regained sensation in the instep of my right foot sometime a month later in Berlin. But that night, lying there in the snow, feeling like my eyes were going to freeze shut whenever I blinked, I watched the moon skirt the rim of the mountains surrounding us -- teasing us, almost -- as the Milky Way ever so slowly spun overhead, brighter than I'd ever seen it in my life.
So what's a foot worth, anyway? Speaking of which ...
The Altitude Started to Destroy Our Bodies
We'll start with Zoli. You'll notice that Zoli hasn't come up much, and that's because his personal expedition was a traveling shitshow. Now, Zoli is quite the accomplished climber. He has summited a huge number of very impressive mountains that most people won't recognize because most of them aren't named "Everest." Take my word for it: he's good. Unfortunately, on this particular expedition, things continually bit him in the ass. Much of his gear didn't arrive in Pakistan until we were already on the mountain for three weeks. He was forced to use damaged leather boots to make it to base camp, leading to frostbite on his big toe. After sending photos of it to his doctor back home, it was recommended that he return to Hungary if he had any interest in keeping it.
If you look very closely, you might see some unnatural coloration on the little piggy that went to market.
As if a raging case of rotten toe weren't enough, he started developing what is commonly referred to as Khumbu Cough, named after the dry, heaving coughs that climbers develop on Nepal's Khumbu Glacier. See, the air at that altitude isn't only thin and cold -- it's dry. The intense coughing that develops as a result can lead to a torn esophagus or cracked ribs.
Zoli supported David and me as best he could through all that, hauling ropes and food to equipment caches and running radio transmissions. After the bivouac, we had a hard talk. Zoli didn't need to stay, freezing amidst the mind-numbing boredom of base camp. A day later, we walked back to Chilas to give him a proper goodbye and to wait out an incoming storm. Zoli's piggy would live to see another climb.
Never discount the practically of crying "wee wee wee" all the way home once in a while.
Two nights later, we were back at base camp, planning our next move. We had to work fast. Another storm was moving in, and if we didn't establish Camp 2 by the time it hit, there was no chance of a summit before winter's end. The next morning, while on lead up a steep gully, something went wrong.
Suddenly, I couldn't see straight. I was nauseous. All the energy I'd felt moments before was gone. Just gone. I called down to David and he climbed past me. I gulped down some water, food, and meds and carried on. We negotiated our way into the labyrinth of ice that would lead to Camp 2.
I may have called David "Mommy" a couple times.
When we reached the top, David turned around. He saw me take three steps, fall to my knees. Get up, three steps, knees. I reached him and he said ... something. It didn't make sense. He tried again, told me this was it. I told him we couldn't set up camp here. "No, we're turning around."
We walked back to the edge that dropped into the labyrinth. David rappelled down. I loaded my rappel device, but it didn't look correct. I did it again and the rope got tangled. I did it again and it was backwards. I had lost the mental capacity to do something I've done hundreds of times a year since I was 12. Finally, I said "fuck it" and leaned back. Luckily for my desire to keep all my squishables on the inside, it worked.
We stopped below the ice field and filmed a short video of me explaining that the expedition was over. I was about to break down like a child at the end when David asks, "So we're going back to Islamabad to eat chipatis?"
At that point, I thought the clouds were chipatis.
My body had finally had enough, and it told me so via high-altitude cerebral edema, a delightful condition in which fluid builds up around your brain and gives it a hug in much the same way an anaconda hugs a pygmy goat. On the way back to base camp, I heard birds that definitely were not there. I believed David was shouting at me in his native Hungarian. I spent the next three nights in base camp hallucinating that I was a mercenary's assistant in a sci-fi novel I was reading and trippily wandering outside into the sub-zero nights.
So that's it. The end of the expedition, the end of my story. Except not quite, because that's when I discovered that ...
Even After the Climb, the Mountain Was Not Done Fucking With Me
As the altitude dropped, so did my wackadoo hallucinations (for the most part, anyway -- when I'm stressed, I still get an avalanche dream or wake up gasping as if the air were thin). During the 10-day wait in Islamabad for our flight back to Budapest, the rotten part of my foot got rottener. Bugs made a veritable feast of me (fleas or bedbugs, I'm not sure which). I still have scars from the bites. Worst of all, I developed a crippling case of the whooping shits.
I'm pretty sure there was Pepto Bismol in that pile of meds somewhere,
but at that point, finding it was one impossible task too many.
Once we made it back to Budapest, I spent the first two weeks sequestering myself due to the horrible stench of my frequent farts and the explosive horror show I'd leave in public restrooms. Was it giardia? Hepatitis B? Bad water? All of the above, plus way too much curry? Shit if I know, and that's pretty much the same answer doctors gave me -- though I still say you haven't truly lived until you've walked into a post office in a foreign country and mailed off a sizable sample of your own poop. To this day, variations in my gut flora (such as too much beer) cause the condition to flare back up. I almost cleared out my friend's wedding reception last week.
The surrounding scenery in this photo was a lush green ten seconds earlier.
In addition to all this, I'm a thin guy -- six feet two inches, around 165 pounds. After the expedition I was weighing in at 145 tops, nothing but ribs and spine. I had to buy new pants in Budapest because my jeans would slump right off. I finally returned to a healthy weight around May of that year, and felt physically fit again towards the end of summer.
As for the future? Well, David, Zoli and I have begun making plans for a summer 2016 return to Pakistan for a dual summit attempt at Gasherbrum I and Broad Peak. And one day, despite it all, I hope to return to Nanga Parbat. That mountain beat the ever-loving shit out of me and hit the reset button on my identity as if I were a glitchy Xbox ... and next time, I hope to look down from its summit, ass firmly intact.
Find out more about the expedition on Facebook. Ian would like to thank his team, David and Zoli, Viktoria Komjati and Bryan Garcia for being rad and running media for us, all our supporters on Indiegogo, and our sponsors at Johnnie Walker, CAMP USA, Mountain Hardwear, Princeton Tec, Tubbs Snowshoes, Cold Avenger, and Human Edge Tech. Jason is an editor for Cracked. Impress all your friends by summiting his Facebook page.
For more insider perspectives, check out 6 Ways You See the World Differently When You Can Hear Color and 6 Realities of the Secret World of Paid TV Audience Members.
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